An Interview with "If & When We Wake's" Francis Daulerio and Frightened Rabbit's Scott Hutchison
While the first edition of If & When We Wake was being edited, printed and set for release, Scott Hutchison and Francis Daulerio sat down and, over the course of a few days, had a conversation about writing, music, inspiration, and influence.
Scott: When did you write your first poem and do you still have it somewhere? Perhaps I mean your first "serious" poem. The one that made you realise that you could actually DO this...
Francis: I’ve always been interested in creative writing, but my poetry “career” is relatively new. I was in a band throughout high school and college, so all of my writing was geared towards crafting songs. Even today, most of my influences are songwriters, not poets. When we stopped playing together in 2008 I wasn't really sure what to do with myself. I tried to do my own thing musically for a little while, but after I graduated I had to trade the guitar in for a job, and that kind of sucked up all my time. A few months after I began teaching, I started really getting into poetry, and eventually I scribbled down a little poem called Gift; or, Curse while I was sitting at cafeteria duty. It’s about the past never totally going away or something like that. Nothing too groundbreaking. My buddy Rich, who I teach with, gave me some tips and encouraging words, and I guess that’s how this all started.
It’s not the best poem, but it was the first one I wrote in the style that I currently follow. It’s only four or five lines long, but I tried to thicken it up with layers. I think it was important because it allowed me to feel out the contemporary poetry world as far as what was considered acceptable, and I was able to use that information to help me craft more poems and eventually apply to grad school for my MFA.
I’ve always had that need to create, and when I wasn't able to satisfy that urge with music, I turned to poetry. How has that worked for you? Did you start out with the visual arts and shift towards music, or have they always been a separate thing?
Scott: I definitely made pictures before I ever thought about making music, though I do clearly recall telling my one of my first school teachers that I wanted to be Eric Clapton when I grew up. I remember being confused by her response at the time, though I now realise she was essentially saying “that might not be a good idea, he was really fucked up for a while.” Throughout high school I was just a guitar player and I had no interest in singing or writing lyrics, so my main creative outlet was still drawing at that point.
That changed during the four years I spent at art school. There, I was making work that generally went down well with my tutors and classmates, but I felt like I was pretending half of the time. There were fewer moments of real expression and joy at just making something. It slowly became a slightly fake, cerebral pursuit as opposed to a genuine reflection of my thoughts and personality. That’s when I started to sing and write lyrics (still very privately for the first 3 years), and the balance slowly began to shift. Music, once a hobby, became a real concern. The art that I was making started to feel emptier and by the time I graduated I had pretty much decided that I was going to be a songwriter first and visual artist second.
That said, the two often go hand in hand, and my approach to writing and recording music is eternally influenced by what I learned at college, particularly the lessons of what NOT to do. I guess I try to follow my instincts with both of these outlets now and it’s strange for drawing to take on a much less intense, more pleasurable role in my life whilst making music has become a business of sorts. I do feel a sense of belonging in the music world though, which I never quite felt at the art school. I suppose this has to do with the “gang” ethic of a band, as opposed to the lonely practise of drawing. I was interested to know whether you write quite privately, or tend to bounce ideas off those whose opinions you trust? Reading the work, I get a real sense of solitude and many hours spent within your own head.
Francis: It’s interesting how that shift occurs. I don’t know how my writing would have changed if I’d continued writing songs, but I definitely feel like what I’m writing now is authentic. I’m not going through the motions with it, at least right now. All of the poems in If & When We Wake are incredibly personal for me, so I didn't need to spend a lot of time inventing material. It’s all the culmination of my experiences over the last ten years or so. In that sense it makes everything really valid for me. Who knows how that will change as I try to push my writing further? Do you ever feel like the creative well is running low?
And yea, you pretty much nailed my creative process. A lot of time spent in my head, brooding over thoughts. I think of it as the Bon Iver approach to writing. You know how Vernon isolated himself in that hunting cabin in Wisconsin when he wrote For Emma Forever Ago? I lock myself into this quiet, private world and let myself become totally immersed in what I’m writing. It’s escape as much as it is catharsis.
I don’t know what your songwriting process looks like, but I spend exponentially more time coming up with a central image than I do actually writing a poem. The material is there, but finding a creative way to get it out is the real challenge, especially with the shorter pieces. The good thing is when it happens, it happens quickly. Some of my favorite pieces were spoken into the recorder on my phone while I was driving to work, but the amount of time that went into developing and editing those ideas is hard to quantify.
As for sharing my work, I hate it. I have a few people who I’ll reach out to for help with unfinished work, like my grad school professors, the other poets I went to school with, a few friends, and my wife, but otherwise I really don’t like bouncing ideas off of people. That’s a flaw, because sometimes it results in shit poetry that I don't realize is shit. At least not right away. I’ll feel like I’m onto something, but there’s always that doubt that keeps me from reaching out to people for tips or help. My MFA program helped me a lot with it, but I doubt I’ll ever be too extroverted when it comes to my writing. I’m just too private.
Maybe I’ll get there eventually. Have you? Do you feel like you know when a song or a picture is satisfying its requirements? I was more than happy to give you carte blanche with the drawings for the book, and I’m so pleased with the results, because I wanted them to be your own interpretations, but did you ever question whether or not a piece fit properly? Was that stressful for you at all?
Scott: I totally agree with the idea of forming words around a central image. Once that’s in place the rest of it tends to arrive reasonably quickly, and I will continue to edit everything right up to the moment I’m called upon to record the final vocal. Those key themes have eluded me for brief periods of time (though it can feel like an age when I’m waiting for something good to arrive). Conversely, I never had any trouble finding a way to represent your words in an image. My method was simply to read through until something struck me, and not to overthink things thereafter. The idea was that new light might be cast on the words and these two pieces can kind of “collaborate” on the page. I loved the fact that you gave me total freedom during this process. This book is something I’m really proud to have been involved in and it gave me a chance to get back inside my own head and work in that private, quiet manner again. So… thanks!
I suppose the major difference between the forms that you and I have chosen is the noise. My work is often pretty fucking loud, but I love the silence and the short, meditative moments that your poetry gives the reader. Do you find it disconcerting that these personal thoughts of yours will now be available to anyone who wants them? I try to look at it as a privilege rather than an intrusion. You are the one extending the invite after all... That said, it was a shock to realise during the first bouts of touring following The Midnight Organ Fight that my private thoughts had become quite the opposite. I guess I’ll ask you about how that feels in a couple of months! I enjoy the fact that any musician has two very different formats in which to present songs - on record and playing live in front of an audience. I didn’t have any choice but to become more extrovert when I made the first moves towards a career in music. Performance is a huge part of my life now and I jumped into it a lot more wholeheartedly than anyone, including myself, could have expected. Have you ever performed your poetry for an audience? It feels like a lot of the poems aren’t really made for the stage, but is that something you’re interested in?
Francis: I was really happy that you didn't ask for directions about drawings. I definitely wanted the book to be more of a collaboration instead of me delegating ideas.
I have done a few readings, but I can’t say I enjoy it. Have you been to the Blind Poet in Edinburgh? It’s a little bar near the university where I did my residency a few summers ago. I gave my first reading there during an Open Mic, and it went pretty well. They have cheap whiskey, too, so that helped. It was a good initiation. I figured if I was terrible, no one would remember me anyway. The poems themselves aren’t fit too well for a live audience, but I find that I can talk between them to give context and a bit of a back-story, which filled what would otherwise be uncomfortable gaps.
It’s weird, because I loved being on stage when I was in a band. I was the singer and I really got into being up there in front of a crowd making noise. Now I write these quiet little poems about tomatoes and people dying, and it feels like such a different beast. I’d be so much more comfortable getting up with my guitar and just playing some songs, but I guess I did this to myself, right? I’m sure it’ll grow on me.
I’m glad you feel that silence! That’s totally what I go for as I write. With this book I tried to create an environment for readers, not just a set of ideas. I wanted to paint a landscape and build a context for people to feel like they’re part of as they read. I think that’s why the central image thing is so important for me, and also why I try to focus so much on natural settings. I want people to feel the dirt and the grass when they’re interacting with the poems. It’s not just the words. It’s about the full experience, which is another reason why I think your illustrations add so much to the book.
Despite my hesitation to share unfinished work, I’m actually really excited for people to read this. While I’m writing, I’m very shut off, but now that it’s done I want as many people to see it as possible. I’m removed from the writing process enough at this point that the whole privacy thing doesn’t scare me anymore. I think it might be difficult for some of my family members to read, so I am a bit nervous about ripping open old scars. But otherwise, I hope everyone who reads it can take something out of it. I like to think that people will be able to identify with the poems on their own personal levels. We’ve all experienced loss of some type. Everybody’s been through some shit, and that has to count for something. I’m sure you have people tell you that they identify Organ Fight with some really important moments in their lives, maybe not in the way you had intended. Do you think about that as you write? Is listener interpretation something you think about when you put an album together?
Scott: I have been to The Blind Poet! A friend of mine read there a couple of years ago, though I didn’t get any of that free whisky. Damn. Personally, I’d hate to get up and read for people. Nobody really knows what to do at poetry events. Do we applaud? Do we interact? Nope, let’s just shuffle our feet and cough every so often. There are very established modes of behaviour for audiences at rock concerts, and I love playing to that. And this is something that, like it or not, is present in the back of my mind when we’re making an album. I do think forward to the potentially massive set closer, or the bit where everyone in the crowd is singing along. It’s not that I design the music to work in that setting, but it’s definitely a (partly subliminal) consideration.
Having said that, I’d never second guess a listener’s interpretation of the material. Once an album or song is released, it doesn’t belong to me anymore. The feeling that went into making it is probably long gone by that point, having spent too many hours in the studio thinking about the snare sound as opposed to the sentiment. I think my family certainly found it enlightening, if a little odd, to hear how my life had been going over the course of the last few albums. Singing a song about suicide when your parents are in the audience is an interesting experience, especially when they didn’t know you had been having such thoughts. But ultimately, it’s a song about NOT killing myself. I think anyone close to you will recognise the same sense of catharsis in your work and realise that this is your way of staying sane.
Going back to the performance thing, perhaps some things are meant to exist only on the page, and it’s an interesting question as to whether anyone even wants to hear why you or I wrote something. I feel like your work lends itself really well to the reader’s immersement in their own memories. Something about the amount of space left on the page around the words makes it very easy to drift off into thought whilst reading your work. Is it intentional to use the page in this way? Graphically speaking, you’ve laid it all out very sparsely which I think works really well. I like how this contrasts with some of the ‘busier’ drawings. I’m not very good at minimalism. Even when I was a wee boy, my mum said i would always fill the page right to the edge when I was drawing. It’s often that way with my music, for better or worse. I’m intrigued as to what kind of music you made/make… Does it relate to your poetry at all? Or is your writing intentionally opposite to what you did with the band?
Francis: Poetry readings can be terribly awkward if the readers don’t know what the hell they’re doing. They’re like solo performances. If the performer is uncomfortable, everybody else will be too. There’s also the problem of etiquette, though. Readings aren’t the most widely attended events, so people don’t know how to handle themselves when they go. I guess it’s a chicken/egg kind of thing. There’s no way to determine who makes it weird, but I think if a crowd is good and a reader is good it can feel really natural. We’ll have to wait and see how the readings go for this book. The minimalism you were talking about works on the page, I think, but doesn't lend itself too well to a smooth reading. Part of me just wants to get up there and read the whole goddamn thing straight through. Let the narrative do the work. That could also backfire hard…
My writing styles have shifted a bit over the years, but emotionally I think there’s a pretty noticeable connection between my lyrics and my poetry. Before my band stopped playing, we had just started recording what would have been our third album. My grandfather had recently passed, and it was basically me pouring out my sorrows into a grouping of ten or so pissed off and depressed songs. Some of them weren’t bad, but a lot of them were just undirected emotional purges. We gave the band up before we got anything recorded, and I was left with this incomplete feeling. I didn't get the catharsis I was looking for because the whole concept never came to fruition in a way that would have given me some closure. I felt like I didn't fully get to say goodbye. That was eight years ago now, and part of me is happy that we never finished it. I think it was all too fresh, and the extra time has given me the ability to step back and let everything settle. In a lot of ways I guess I let that need be my starting point for If & When We Wake. It picks up where those songs would have, but in a more mature and crafted way. It also gave me time to zoom out and see how those feelings informed the other experiences in my life, which let the poems in the book take on other topics.
I still write songs here and there. Some of them have served as starting points for poems. I’m really into the indie rock and folk groups. Modest Mouse, Typhoon, Fleet Foxes, Iron & Wine, Horse Feathers, Gregory Alan Isakov. I don’t think there’s a big difference between their writing and mine, at least where theme and image are concerned. I’m certainly not comparing myself to them, though. You can definitely find their influences in my writing. And there are bands like Death Cab for Cutie, who actually led me to Frightened Rabbit, that I can listen to no matter what’s going on in my life. These bands are just as important to me as the poets I’ve grown to love. They’ve permeated every aspect of my life, and I approach their works in the same way I’d approach a book or a piece of art. Do you have bands like that?
I’d love to get back into music some day, because I do miss it, but I don’t know how or why that would ever realistically happen. A pipedream I guess. For now I’m just going to see what happens with this book, and hopefully I’ll sit down to start writing the next one soon. What’s next for Frabbits? You guys are heading into the studio soon, right?
Scott: I have only a handful of bands that are always with me. I suppose it’s similar to the way we tend to make friends; the most meaningful relationships are formed in your 20’s. For me that happened with The National, TV on the Radio, Wilco, Ryan Adams, Sigur Ros, Mogwai, The Twilight Sad, Neutral Milk Hotel… Frightened Rabbit wouldn’t be what it is without those bands and artists. I’ve been surreptitiously (or perhaps not so!) ripping all of those guys off for the past 10 years. But then you can skew and twist the things you steal to make them your own. For this latest album, which we start recording in June, the influences are different again but the aforementioned will always be there, chipping in.
The point when an album starts to come together after a year of slowly finding the puzzle pieces is an incredibly exciting time. I’m sure it’s the same feeling for you with this book. I’m really looking forward to it coming out! I think we first met in October 2013, that’s when you handed me the first manuscript. It’s been a long journey. Congratulations, Fran!
Francis: Yea, that was October, before your show at the Electric Factory. I can’t believe how far this whole thing has come since then, and I couldn’t be happier about how it’s all turning out. It’s funny. Some years before that, my wife and I saw you guys play at the First Unitarian Church in Philly with the Bad Veins, and halfway through their opening set I realized we were standing next to you. I didn’t have the balls to say anything, which was probably for the best. I get really awkward in those types of situations. I hadn’t really even considered writing a book yet, and to think how much has happened since then just blows me away. Thanks so much for getting involved in this project with me! It’s really turned my vision into something remarkable.
Scott: Ha! Well, I’m glad you had the balls to ask me to illustrate the book! It was a big relief when I read your work after that show at the Electric Factory and realised that it is truly brilliant. I love that it can be read both as tiny moments and as a greater whole. I guess it’s often the same with songs and albums. The reader/listener can scratch the surface and still enjoy the work, but there is layer upon layer hiding below that can be so rewarding if you care to get a spade. I hope we can work together again in the future and can’t wait for the book to come out. Exciting times!
Francis: I’m glad you enjoyed collaborating on this! It’s the first creative project I’ve worked on that I’ve truly felt reflected my original vision. It’s been great having you on board. I owe you quite a few beers, or perhaps some good whiskey. We’ll get that all sorted out soon!
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